Inside the teenage brain: How science is helping us understand adolescents

Teenagers can be erratic and emotional. But recent science may just have the answer to why teenagers are the way they are — and it's not just about hormones. This new understanding is changing the way some societies see teens and it may just lead to changing the boundary between teenager and adult.

Schools in Europe and the U.S. are increasingly adapting teaching methods to accommodate the adolescent brain

The teenage brain is a mysterious thing and it's eluded adults since the beginning of time. Until recently, it was assumed the brain was fully developed by the age of nine. But scientific research shows the brain usually develops until the age of 25 — and in some cases even longer. (Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

* Originally broadcast on Jan. 28, 2020.

When kids enter adolescence, they become bolder, moodier and take more risks. Until recently, the blame was laid on hormones; it was assumed that the brain was fully developed by about the age of nine.

But scientific research done at the Brain and Development Research Center in the Netherlands, and in the U.K. at University College London has revealed that our brains aren't fully developed until the age of 25.

"The actual concept of adolescence that we carry around in our heads these days is something that was formed largely in the late 19th and early 20th century," according to Paula Fass, a history professor at the University of California. 

"Today our view of adolescence has a different kind of scientific underpinning because we have equipment and things available to us to look into brain development that at the time you had to hypothesize about."

Since the 1990s, neuroscientists have been using MRIs to study how the teenage brain develops. They discovered that starting from the age of about 10, synapses often misfire, as the brain and its internal communication systems continue to develop.

The neurological activity of a teenager performing a task is remarkably different than that of an adult — teenagers use different regions of the brain to accomplish tasks than adults and children.

The recent findings of teenage brain science has led some teachers in Europe and the U.S. to change their teaching techniques since adolescents learn differently. (Getty Images/Image Source)

In an adolescent brain, the reward centre develops before its control centre, and that can lead to the unpredictable behaviour and emotional swings that are characteristic of adolescent behaviour.

"A lot of us believe that this imbalance between this highly aroused, emotional, social reward centre of the brain and the still maturing self-control system creates a kind of vulnerability during adolescence — and it may be related to the propensity of teenagers to take a lot of risks," according to Lawrence Steinberg, a professor of psychology and author of Age of Opportunity. 

Adapting to the teenage brain in classrooms

Six Brain-Friendly Principles

Psychologist Spencer Kagan was one of the first proponents of cooperative learning, and developed six principles to help teenage students learn more faster, and with greater interest and pleasure.

1. Safety - An adolescent brain doesn't work well in an environment where bullying, pressure or humiliation can occur. Adolescents tend to have short fuses when they're unprepared for something. Stimulating positive social interaction in the classroom, or using background music to set a relaxing tone both help the brain do its job better.

2. Social - The brain is a social organ. Humans are by nature drawn to collaborate with others. When students occasionally work in pairs and exchange opinions about what they're learning, they learn better. Using cooperative games to stimulate social cognition instead of competitive games also helps. 

3. Emotions - Teens relate to emotion and become enthusiastic when presented with material that has emotion attached to it. When teachers express wonder and surprise during a chemistry experiment, or use different forms of media to help students understand the impact of what they're learning, students become more engaged with the material.

4. Attention - When lessons are arranged so there's no multitasking, students can focus on the material and it sticks with them longer. A brain friendly education teacher might break a lesson up into small pieces and tell students to during the next 5 minutes to just listen. After the teacher has finished speaking, the students will then be asked to write down a summary. 

5. Nourishment - Sitting all day isn't good for anyone. Brain friendly education allows students to drink water in class, and works in quick movement breaks - jumping on the spot or see who can do 50 sit ups the fastest, for example. These things, among others, provide the proper nourishment to the brain.

6. Stimuli - The brain responds to 13 different kinds of stimuli - not all of them good. But if they are selectively used during lessons, attention and learning improves. During a math lesson about estimation, a teacher may bring in a big jar of Smarties and asking them to guess how many of each colour there are. 

As research became publicly available, the concept of brain-friendly education was developed: education that considers how adolescent brains work as they develop.

In high school, for example, we expect teenagers to be good at planning "because they're old enough." But the part of the brain that's needed for planning isn't developed yet. Brain-friendly education helps schools, teachers and parents navigate around those limitations to reduce frustration in all parties, especially students.

Wouter Camps, an educational consultant in The Hague, gives workshops on brain-friendly education and helps schools develop curriculums that are adapted to the teenage brain. He says allowing students to communicate more with each other during class, and using stimulating content that's closer to the lives they live helps adolescents connect with the material.

"In early years, the teacher came into the classroom, said 'Welcome everybody, take your workbook and let's look at the homework.' There is no child that thinks, 'Well, that's great and that's what I want to do!" he told IDEAS.

Placing more trust in the students and giving them more freedom to make their own choices, using more audio-visual material to stimulate their brains, and letting the students work in groups more often helps them to be more motivated, and engaged, Camps explained. 

He says teachers are interested in learning more.

"They say, 'Give me more information about the brain of my students. I want to change my way of teaching because I want to have a connection with my group.'"

But, he adds, the best results are when teachers mix traditional teaching methods with those that are novel.

"We need to search for balance. If you don't have brain-friendly principles in place, the possibility of disruptive behaviour is high. Even if you are an experienced teacher, you can't say, 'I'm a teacher, so the children will listen to me,'" Camps said.

"You really have to deal with their needs and their need is to have a relationship with you. Their need is to feel competent and to also have some choice so they may have some autonomy. If you deal with those needs, then the chance of a lesson working well is much, much bigger." 

Guests in this episode:

  • Berna Güroğlu is a professor of neuroscience of social relations at Leiden University, The Netherlands: 
  • Brain and Development Research Center
  • Larry Steinberg is a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. 
  • Paula Fass is a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley.
  • Wouter Camps is an educational consultant at HCO in The Hague, The Netherlands
  • Rianne de Back is a public prosecutor in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Recommended reading:

* This episode was produced by Anik See and Naheed Mustafa.

Anik See is a Canadian audio producer and writer living in The Netherlands. She has produced documentaries and podcasts for the CBC, ABC, BBC and Radio Netherlands Worldwide, as well as for independent projects. 

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